The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Tangled emotions, ancient cities, new dreams

“Do you like it better in Ethiopia or America”

Again…at an author visit in Boston last weekend…the question.

I had talked about how I left the U.S. so young I had no memories of that country, how I’d reconnected briefly with Adrian, Oregon and my father’s home the year I was seven.  About how awkward it felt, coming to the U.S. every five years for a brief visit.  About how my writing finally gave me a way to talk about Ethiopia.

But what about the teenaged self that visited my grandparents’ farm and played on the swing with cousins and wanted to hang around with them?  What about now…that I’ve lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life?

Sometimes a book gives us words to wrap around complicated emotions.  For me, I explained to the student who asked, it’s Grandfather’s Journey, a picture book that won the Caldecott Medal in 1994.

“The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”   Such a lyrical book.  Such a gift for naming the ways of the wandering heart.

I didn’t know until I looked at his official biography that Allen Say lives where I live.  I did know he was born in Yokohama, Japan. “He dreamed of becoming a cartoonist from the age of six,” says, the bio, “and, at age twelve, apprenticed himself to his favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei.”

Sometimes passions hook onto us when we’re six.  Or twelve.  Sometimes not until we’re much older.  At the Ethiopia Reads ( events in Boston, it was thrilldom to meet grown-ups who are exploring art or fundraising or entrepreneurial ideas for the first time.  A lot of people visit Ethiopia and get impassioned, as I do, about the possibility of a worldwide community that can form around reading and writing and dreaming and connections.  (This Boston group was helping raise money so the young women who work for Ethiopia Reads can have a vehicle to drive around to offer support and books to the new libraries.)

This Saturday in Portland, my bro and I will do a presentation at Make a Difference Day, an idea that grew out of a book group that read Half the Sky and wanted to do something to reach out to women and girls.

It’s no accident that Lanie, the character I created for American Girl, discovers she can make a difference in her backyard or around the world.   On Saturday, people will come to hear about writing a book–about gardens–about the animals in our back yards…and about libraries.

If we’re lucky, this girl in school in Harar, Ethiopia will have books to read because of those who come to Make a Difference day and the other volunteers who’ve supported that project.

So today I’m sitting in Portland, Oregon, looking out at the gray sky, but I’m remembering Harar…

A mysterious, ancient city I visited when I was about 12.  A chance now, many years later, to help its children someday tell its stories.

Homesick everywhere I go.

But finding a home, over and over, in books and words and stories and the joy of sharing the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures of my life.

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